“Whether the response is lashing out, turning inward, tuning out, or giving up, Americans are becoming increasingly paralyzed by disagreement, disillusionment, and despair. Indeed, many Americans seem to agree these days on only one thing: This is the worst of times.”R. Putnam & S.R. Garett, The Upswing (excerpt)
Along with a revised edition of the classic Bowling Alone, a new book has come out by Robert Putnam. With his new work, Shaylyn Romney Garrett joins him as co-author. The title is The Upswing with the accompanying subtitle of “How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again.” The basic premise appears to be that the mood at present resonates with the complaints and fears of an earlier era when the mood soured in the decades following the Civil War. As Americans headed into the next century, many voices lamented the end of an age, as if a new age would not follow (John Higgs, Stranger Than We Can Imagine).
Based on their generations theory, William Strauss and Neil Howe would give a simple response. This pattern has repeated many times over. But living memory is so short. In fact, it’s the loss of living memory of the last cycle that drives it to swing back around again. The old is made new again, as if a foreign land never seen before. That is why it requires an historical awareness to realize we’ve been here before and what to expect as we move into the next phase. Even as we are in the Crisis that turns the wheel of the Fourth Turning, something else is emerging upon which different social institutions and collective identities will be built.
This cyclical view of humanity and society is the most ancient of understandings. But in modernity we have falsely come to believe that there is endless linear progress into the unknown and unpredictable. That is the empty pride of modern Western civilization, that we are unique, that we have broken the chains of the past. Maybe not. Jeremiads of moral panic about decadence and decline usually presage moral revivals and rebirth (Jackson Lears, Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877-1920). That has been the pattern, so some argue, for centuries now. Is there a reason to think this time will be different?
In every generation that reaches this point in the cycle, there are those who confidently declare this time will be different, that this time it will be permanent, that further change is now impossible, that further innovation has ended, that the vitalizing force of society has been lost, that the younger generations aren’t up to the task, maybe even that we’ve entered the end times. Yet, so far, these predictions have been disproven over and over again. We act out what we suppress from awareness. So the more we deny the reality of cycles the more we become trapped in them. Our historical amnesia dooms us to falling back into patterns we don’t see.
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‘The Upswing’ Review: Bowling Alone No More?
by Yuval Levin
“Drawing ingeniously on a vast array of data—economic, political, cultural, social and more—Mr. Putnam and Ms. Garrett persuasively demonstrate that Gilded Age America suffered from civic and social strains remarkably similar to our own. Then they explore how, from the final years of the 19th century until the end of the 1950s, an extraordinary range of forces in our national life, in their words, “shaped an America that was more equal, less contentious, more connected, and more conscious of shared values.” Finally they consider why, all of a sudden and without clear warning, “the diverse streams simultaneously reversed direction, and since the 1960s America has become steadily less equal, more polarized, more fragmented, and more individualistic.”
“They chart this path from “I” to “we” and back again to “I” across essentially every facet of the American experience. Drawing some lessons from the Progressive Era, broadly understood, they suggest that a return toward a culture of “we” would need to involve a restoration of civic ambition directed toward pragmatic, concrete, incremental changes. That means building new institutions to address new problems, and it means paving paths from shared frustrations toward accommodations and reforms that could endure. It means devoting time to local service organizations and religious and professional groups, and talking less about how things got so bad and more about how to make them better where we are. It means fighting corruption and combating despair. And it means helping a rising generation think about its future, rather than drowning in debates about past feuds and divisions.
“But the key, for Mr. Putnam and Ms. Garrett, is to move from broad categories of action like these to specific instances of practical organization and engagement. This is why the example of America in the first half of the 20th century can be so powerful. It is a positive answer to the question that threatens to debilitate anyone looking to turn things around in contemporary America: Is revival even possible? The authors make a strong case that a recovery of solidarity is achievable.”